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       Black Jack, p.3

           Max Brand
 

  CHAPTER 3

  "If Terry worries you like this," suggested her brother kindly, "whydon't you forbid these pranks?"

  She looked at him as if in surprise.

  "Forbid Terry?" she echoed, and then smiled. Decidedly this was her firsttone, a soft tone that came from deep in her throat. Instinctively Vancecontrasted it with the way she had spoken to him. But it was always thisway when Terry was mentioned. For the first time he saw it clearly. Itwas amazing how blind he had been. "Forbid Terence? Vance, that devil ofa horse is part of his life. He was on a hunting trip when he saw LeSangre--"

  "Good Lord, did they call the horse that?"

  "A French-Canadian was the first to discover him, and he gave the name.And he's the color of blood, really. Well, Terence saw Le Sangre on ahilltop against the sky. And he literally went mad. Actually, he struckout on foot with his rifle and lived in the country and never stoppedwalking until he wore down Le Sangre somehow and brought him backhobbled--just skin and bones, and Terence not much more. Now Le Sangre ishimself again, and he and Terence have a fight--like that--every day. Idream about it; the most horrible nightmares!"

  "And you don't stop it?"

  "My dear Vance, how little you know Terence! You couldn't tear that horseout of his life without breaking his heart. I _know!_"

  "So you suffer, day by day?"

  "I've done very little else all my life," said Elizabeth gravely. "AndI've learned to bear pain."

  He swallowed. Also, he was beginning to grow irritated. He had neverbefore had a talk with Elizabeth that contained so many reefs thatthreatened shipwreck. He returned to the gist of their conversationrather too bluntly.

  "But to continue, Elizabeth, any banker would lend me money on myprospects."

  "You mean the property which will come to you when I die?"

  He used all his power, but he could not meet her glance. "You know that'sa nasty way to put it, Elizabeth."

  "Dear Vance," she sighed, "a great many people say that I'm a hard woman.I suppose I am. And I like to look facts squarely in the face. Yourprospects begin with my death, of course."

  He had no answer, but bit his lip nervously and wished the ordeal wouldcome to an end.

  "Vance," she went on, "I'm glad to have this talk with you. It'ssomething you have to know. Of course I'll see that during my life or mydeath you'll be provided for. But as for your main prospects, do you knowwhere they are?"

  "Well?"

  She was needlessly brutal about it, but as she had told him, hereducation had been one of pain.

  "Your prospects are down there by the river on the back of Le Sangre."

  Vance Cornish gasped.

  "I'll show you what I mean, Vance. Come along."

  The moment she rose, some of her age fell from her. Her carriage waserect. Her step was still full of spring and decision, as she led the wayinto the house. It was a big, solid, two-story building which themightiest wind could not shake. Henry Cornish had merely founded thehouse, just as he had founded the ranch; the main portion of the work hadbeen done by his daughter. And as they passed through, her stern old eyerested peacefully on the deep, shadowy vistas, and her foot fell withjust pride on the splendid rising sweep of the staircase. They passedinto the roomy vault of the upper hall and went down to the end. She tookout a big key from her pocket and fitted it into the lock; then Vancedropped his hand on her arm. His voice lowered.

  "You've made a mistake, Elizabeth. This is Father's room."

  Ever since his death it had been kept unchanged, and practicallyunentered save for an occasional rare day of work to keep it in order.Now she nodded and resolutely turned the key and swung the door open.Vance went in with an exclamation of wonder. It was quite changed fromthe solemn old room and the brown, varnished woodwork which heremembered. Cream-tinted paint now made the walls cool and fresh. Thesolemn engravings no longer hung above the bookcases. And the bookcasesthemselves had been replaced with built-in shelves pleasantly filled withrich bindings, black and red and deep yellow-browns. A tall cabinet stoodopen at one side filled with rifles and shotguns of every description,and another cabinet was loaded with fishing apparatus. The stiff-backedchairs had given place to comfortable monsters of easy lines. VanceCornish, as one in a dream, peered here and there.

  "God bless us!" he kept repeating. "God bless us! But where's there atrace of Father?"

  "I left it out," said Elizabeth huskily, "because this room is meantfor--but let's go back. Do you remember that day twenty-four years agowhen we took Jack Hollis's baby?"

  "When _you_ took it," he corrected. "I disclaim all share in the idea."

  "Thank you," she answered proudly. "At any rate, I took the boy andcalled him Terence Colby."

  "Why that name," muttered Vance, "I never could understand."

  "Haven't I told you? No, and I hardly know whether to trust even you withthe secret, Vance. But you remember we argued about it, and you said thatblood would out; that the boy would turn out wrong; that before he wastwenty-five he would have shot a man?"

  "I believe the talk ran like that."

  "Well, Vance, I started out with a theory; but the moment I had that babyin my arms, it became a matter of theory, plus, and chiefly plus. I keptremembering what you had said, and I was afraid. That was why I worked upthe Colby idea."

  "That's easy to see."

  "It wasn't so easy to do. But I heard of the last of an old Virginiafamily who had died of consumption in Arizona. I traced his family. Hewas the last of it. Then it was easy to arrange a little story: TerenceColby had married a girl in Arizona, died shortly after; the girl diedalso, and I took the baby. Nobody can disprove what I say. There's not aliving soul who knows that Terence is the son of Jack Hollis--except youand me."

  "How about the woman I got the baby from?"

  "I bought her silence until fifteen years ago. Then she died, and nowTerry is convinced that he is the last representative of the Colbyfamily."

  She laughed with excitement and beckoned him out of the room and intoanother--Terry's room, farther down the hall. She pointed to a largephotograph of a solemn-faced man on the wall. "You see that?"

  "Who is it?"

  "I got it when I took Terry to Virginia last winter--to see the oldfamily estate and go over the ground of the historic Colbys."

  She laughed again happily.

  "Terry was wild with enthusiasm. He read everything he could lay hishands on about the Colbys. Discovered the year they landed in Virginia;how they fought in the Revolution; how they fought and died in the CivilWar. Oh, he knows every landmark in the history of 'his' family. Ofcourse, I encouraged him."

  "I know," chuckled Vance. "Whenever he gets in a pinch, I've heard yousay: 'Terry, what should a Colby do?'"

  "And," cut in Elizabeth, "you must admit that it has worked. There isn'ta prouder, gentler, cleaner-minded boy in the world than Terry. Notblood. It's the blood of Jack Hollis. But it's what he thinks himself tobe that counts. And now, Vance, admit that your theory is exploded."

  He shook his head.

  "Terry will do well enough. But wait till the pinch comes. You don't knowhow he'll turn out when the rub comes. _Then_ blood will tell!"

  She shrugged her shoulders angrily.

  "You're simply being perverse now, Vance. At any rate, that picture isone of Terry's old 'ancestors,' Colonel Vincent Colby, of prewar days.Terry has discovered family resemblances, of course--same black hair,same black eyes, and a great many other things."

  "But suppose he should ever learn the truth?" murmured Vance.

  She caught her breath.

  "That would be ruinous, of course. But he'll never learn. Only you and Iknow."

  "A very hard blow, eh," said Vance, "if he were robbed of the Colbyillusion and had Black Jack put in its place as a cold fact? But ofcourse we'll never tell him."

  Her color was never high. Now it became gray. Only her eyes remainedburning, vivid, young, blazing out through the mask of age.

  "Remember you sai
d his blood would tell before he was twenty-five; thatthe blood of Black Jack would come to the surface; that he would haveshot a man?"

  "Still harping on that, Elizabeth? What if he does?"

  "I'd disown him, throw him out penniless on the world, never see himagain."

  "You're a Spartan," said her brother in awe, as he looked on that thin,stern face. "Terry is your theory. If he disappoints you, he'll be simplya theory gone wrong. You'll cut him out of your life as if he were analgebraic equation and never think of him again."

  "But he's not going wrong, Vance. Because, in ten days, he'll be twenty-five! And that's what all these changes mean. The moment it grows dark onthe night of his twenty-fifth birthday, I'm going to take him into myfather's room and turn it over to him."

  He had listened to her patiently, a little wearied by her unusual flow ofwords. Now he came out of his apathy with a jerk. He laid his hand onElizabeth's shoulder and turned her so that the light shone full in herface. Then he studied her.

  "What do you mean by that, Elizabeth?"

  "Vance," she said steadily, but with a touch of pity in her voice, "Ihave waited for a score of years, hoping that you'd settle down and tryto do a man's work either here or somewhere else. You haven't done it.Yesterday Mr. Cornwall came here to draw up my will. By that will I leaveyou an annuity, Vance, that will take care of you in comfort; but I leaveeverything else to Terry Colby. That's why I've changed the room. Themoment it grows dark ten days from today, I'm going to take Terry by thehand and lead him into the room and into the position of my father!"

  The mask of youth which was Vance Cornish crumbled and fell away. A newman looked down at her. The firm flesh of his face became loose. Hiswhole body was flabby. She had the feeling that if she pushed against hischest with the weight of her arm, he would topple to the floor. Thatweakness gradually passed. A peculiar strength of purpose grew in itsplace.

  "Of course, this is a very shrewd game, Elizabeth. You want to wake meup. You're using the spur to make me work. I don't blame you for usingthe bluff, even if it's a rather cruel one. But, of course, it'simpossible for you to be serious in what you say."

  "Why impossible, Vance?"

  "Because you know that I'm the last male representative of our family.Because you know my father would turn in his grave if he knew that aninterloper, a foundling, the child of a murderer, a vagabond, had beenmade the heir to his estate. But you aren't serious, Elizabeth; Iunderstand."

  He swallowed his pride, for panic grew in him in proportion to the lengthof time she maintained her silence.

  "As a matter of fact, I don't blame you for giving me a scare, my dearsister. I have been a shameless loafer. I'm going to reform and lift theburden of business off your shoulders--let you rest the remainder of yourlife."

  It was the worst thing he could have said. He realized it the moment hehad spoken. This forced, cowardly surrender was worse than brazendefiance, and he saw her lip curl. An idler is apt to be like a sullenchild, except that in a grown man the child's sulky spite becomes a darkmalice, all-embracing. For the very reason that Vance knew he wasreceiving what he deserved, and that this was the just reward for histhriftless years of idleness, he began to hate Elizabeth with a cold,quiet hatred. There is something stimulating about any great passion. NowVance felt his nerves soothed and calmed. His self-possession returnedwith a rush. He was suddenly able to smile into her face.

  "After all," he said, "you're absolutely right. I've been a failure,Elizabeth--a rank, disheartening failure. You'd be foolish to trust theresult of your life labors in my hands--entirely foolish. I admit thatit's a shrewd blow to see the estate go to--Terry."

  He found it oddly difficult to name the boy.

  "But why not? Why not Terry? He's a clean youngster, and he may turn outvery well--in spite of his blood. I hope so. The Lord knows you've givenhim every chance and the best start in the world. I wish him luck!"

  He reached out his hand, and her bloodless fingers closed strongly overit.

  "There's the old Vance talking," she said warmly, a mist across her eyes."I almost thought that part of you had died."

  He writhed inwardly. "By Jove, Elizabeth, think of that boy, coming outof nothing, everything poured into his hands--and now within ten days ofhis goal! Rather exciting, isn't it? Suppose he should stumble at thevery threshold of his success? Eh?"

  He pressed the point with singular insistence.

  "Doesn't it make your heart beat, Elizabeth, when you think that he mightfall--that he might do what I prophesied so long ago--shoot a man beforehe's twenty-five?"

  She shrugged the supposition calmly away.

  "My faith in him is based as strongly as the rocks, Vance. But if hefell, after the schooling I've given him, I'd throw him out of my life--forever."

  He paused a moment, studying her face with a peculiar eagerness. Then heshrugged in turn. "Tush! Of course, that's impossible. Let's go down."

 
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